Grapelive Lastest: Brandy’s Italian Wine Trek Continues

Grapelive: Sicily
Brandy Falconer


selinunta.jpgTrecastagni Sicily, BBQ with Ciro and Stephanie Biondi and the winemakers of Etna region.

After a week in Naples to reorganize and refresh at my friends’ home in Pozzuoli, Sicily was calling.  It would be my first time on the island, but I would be visiting three wineries to which I was introduced at Vinitaly: Vini Biondi, Planeta and Morgante.  I had a very early flight out from rainy Naples, and found not only the number of people at the airport shocking, but also the fact that everyone was vibrant and put together at ten minutes to six in the morning.  Is it the Neapolitan espresso perhaps?  The 50-minute flight down to Catania was easy if not a little bumpy from the stormy weather.  I grabbed my luggage (yes, it was there, waiting for me) and headed to the row of coffee bars in the tiny airport, choosing the one where I saw all of the airline workers and Carabinieri going, figuring this must be their daily routine.  I noticed a sign above the coffee machine advertising almond milk cappuccino, so I ordered one and enjoyed it and a delicious brioche, agreeing with anyone who has ever said that Sicilian bread and pastries are the best.  For those of us in search of alternatives to cow’s milk, I think is a delicious alternative.  I made my way outside to the car rental offices and picked up the keys to my stylish little Fiat, deciding against the Tom Tom navigation system since I brought my friend’s Garmin from Naples… except that I had actually forgotten it in my haste to leave the house.  Oh well, how bad could driving in Sicily be?  Besides, I had a fancy Michelin map just in case.  Oh, those famous last words…

biondioldvine.jpgI chose my route on the autostrada North along the coast to Acireale then headed East on the small roads (which should really be called road-lets) to Trecastagni where I met my host, Ciro Biondi of Vini Biondi in the town square.  I followed him up even smaller roads on the steep incline created by Mount Etna to a charming and beautiful winery with Bed and Breakfast called Palmento La Rosa, less than 5 minutes from the town square.  The low fog created an atmosphere that reminded me of a fairytale forest, and even though I could not actually see Mt. Etna, this ethereal setting would not have been the same without it.

The plan for the day was to enjoy a barbecue in Biondi’s Ronzini vineyards with Ciro and Stephanie as hosts, but as the weather just wasn’t cooperating, the lunch was moved to Palmento La Rosa, where I would be staying.  The proprietors, Franz and Zora Hochreutener, a delightful Swiss couple opened up their B&B to the lunch guests, and the location and setting was perfect for the occasion as the 18th century building was built and used as a wine press until just a few years ago.  After dropping my bags off in my comfortable and well-appointed room, and meeting my hosts, I understood what I had read on their website, “combining the best of our experiences in various countries, you will find a mix of Swiss quality, French charm and Italian hospitality at Palmento La Rosa.”

I set off with Ciro to visit their vineyards before the guests arrived for lunch.  We started with the highest elevation first, at the Mt. Ilice vineyard, which was magical, with a steep (50% grade!) slope, black crunchy volcanic soil, ground fog and tiny little bright green shoots emerging from the old twisted vines.  Climbing up the incline and at about 900 meters in altitude, I stopped to catch my breath and then wondered how in the world the workers tend to these vines, and then manage a harvest on these slopes.  There is of course a machine to transport equipment and grapes up and down the hillside, but take a look at their website to see the photos of Mt. Ilice and you will see what I am talking about.

biondisbrandy.jpgWe then headed to Carpene vineyard and finally Ronzoni, where there is a beautiful terrace with a cooking and seating area which looks to be the perfect setting for an event (again, take a look at the website, www.vinibiondi.it) The fascinating thing about this terraced vineyard are the Greek artifacts that were found here while creating it.  Carved out of the black volcanic rock are ancient millstones and a very large bas-relief phallus, sort of a fertility-charm hitching post for the animals at the time.  Greek ruins, mind you, not Roman, so these date back thousands of years, as do many of the grape varietals still found and cultivated in Sicily today.  This is a noteworthy project that many Sicilian producers take seriously, cultivating and rediscovering the ancient indigenous vines that were used by the Greeks.

ciro_barriques.jpgComing back down the bumpy, twisty road, we were heading to the winery when Ciro’s phone rang to the tune of Homer Simpson’s “Spider Pig.”  Laughing, I wondered who are these people and what have they done with the serious winemakers?  In this seemingly limited landscape and terroir, these people aren’t stuffy producers, and though young, they are not the snooty up-and-comers either.  They are fun people, always laughing, who love wine, and love the land and the people who make winemaking possible.  At this point I knew that there was much more in store that afternoon.  At the modest and compact winery, I enjoyed some barrel tastings of the Nerello Cappuccio and the blend with Nerello Mascalese which will be the Outis (Nessuno) DOC label, as well as the Gurna Rosso IGT from Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola.  After talking with several winemakers who tell about how they tinker and experiment in their winemaking with barrels, ageing and production, I asked Ciro how he experiments with the wines he makes, and he instantly replied, “the vines!”  This is a winemaker who concentrates on the heart of the process, the fruit itself, and standing on the Etna slopes, with the decomposed lava crunching underfoot, I could really appreciate the complexity of this sentiment…even though I still hadn’t actually seen the top half of the mountain I was presently standing on!

Back to Palmento La Rosa where the guests, other winemakers from the Etna region, had started arriving with bottles from their own cellars to share, including Marco Asmundo from Barone di Villagrande, Alberto Graci from Graci, and lunch.jpgGiuseppe Russo from Girolamo Russo.  This would be my first time enjoying traditional Sicilian food, so luckily one of the guests brought me over to the cheese plate and started explaining the various traditional cheeses like the orange-hued Piacentinu, using saffron-infused sheep’s milk, which I enjoyed with a glass of Murgo’s Brut Rose metodo classico from 100% Nerello Mascalese grapes – a delicious start!  Next I tried the fava bean puree with fresh fennel drizzled with delicious olive oil from Vini Biondi, and then I discovered my favorite dish, the flattened-egg-shaped meatballs cooked in lemon leaves – extraordinary!  There must have been 12 different wines open by this point, and not knowing where to start, I just held my glass out to anyone walking by with a bottle.  A smart choice in this area because each producer created their wines on the slopes of the same volcano, using basically the same grape varietals, and what deliciously different wines they all created, as unique as the personalities of these guests.  And for you “label lovers” out there, the diversity was also reflected in the packaging, and it was almost a game to try to discover which label belonged to which winemaker after a brief conversation.  This was a wonderful way to experience winemaking, and reminded me of races I attended as a child, where champion race drivers were put in identical cars and the results were a expression of different skills, experiences and drive.  When you think about these producers who are all competing for sales and notoriety, it might make you wonder why they come together like this to share a Sunday afternoon of food, wine and stories.  I found that while they are sharply focused on quality winemaking, balancing the terroir with their indigenous grapes, they also have the peripheral vision to grasp the bigger picture, of Etna, of Sicily and the Italian market as well, and they know that while perhaps their individual output will restrict their competition at a high level in a global market, they realize that the wines of the Etna Region can, and will.

planetaresort.jpgSicily – Planeta’s Ulmo estate winery in Sambuca di Sicilia, & Cantina Piccola & Grande in Menfi

After a difficult drive in the rain the day before, I left my nice seaside hotel near the Palermo airport and drove south about 90 minutes to Sambuca di Sicilia, whose sister city in the U.S., you may want to know is Winter Haven, Florida.   I would be meeting Chiara Planeta at Ulmo, one of the five Planeta estate wineries, which, in years past was a stopping place for farmers driving their horses and cattle.  I had met Chiara’s cousins Francesca and Alessio the winemaker, at Vinitaly, and was very excited to see the estates because they treat each one as its own winery with its own equipment to reduce the transport time for the grapes in the hot summers.  In contrast to this, it was pouring when I arrived, having driven cautiously down the windy path from town.  While Chiara was showing me the main reception building, the rain let up a bit so we decided to take the short walk down to the winery.  This was an impressive operation with shiny stainless tanks, mostly indoors and a beautiful underground barrique cellar, all air conditioned to maintain quality control in the hot summers.

dogs.jpgWe walked back up to the main building and began tasting as lunch was being prepared.  Out the windows, the view of the olive trees and beyond to the man-made lake Arancio (orange) was beautiful, even in the stormy weather.  We started with the Rose, from 100% Syrah, whose aromas of wild strawberry and flowers, combined with a roundness and great acidity would be delicious with the suggested grilled fish and tomato and onion salad.  Next was the La Segreta Bianco that smelled like a fresh fruit salad with a hint of minerals, which would make a wonderful aperitif.  Note that these two, because they are the “ready to drink” wines, are offered in a screw top, which is something of a slow and experimental transition for Planeta because they recognize the prejudice towards this method of bottling, both in Italy and abroad.  As we tasted the more serious whites, the Alastro, Cometa and the 100% Chardonnay, there was a definite link between these wines, the citrus undertones, which is not a huge surprise as Sicily is known for their citrus fruit production.  We moved on to the reds starting with the La Segreta Rosso, a wine that Chiara describes as the one that makes them most proud.  This is an easy drinking wine that has pleasant herbal aromas and plum flavors that when slightly chilled allow it to shine as a summer barbecue wine or aperitif.

br_tanktaste.jpgThe Cerasuolo di Vittoria, from Nero d’Avola and Frappato is the only DOCG wine in Sicily, with its beautiful bright ruby color, and easy to drink style.  The 100% Nero d’Avola Santa Cecilia is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and this dark ruby wine with great tannins and smoky cherry flavors is very elegant.  Finally, we tasted the Syrah, and because it is not normally my favorite wine, I was eager to try their interpretation of this grape.  First thing I noticed was that I could actually taste the grapes, and coupled with the soft chocolate aromas and smoky undertones, I felt like I had found a Syrah that I would enjoy drinking again.

Lunch arrived and the wonderfully rustic table was set and we brought a few bottles and our glasses over to the table.  We enjoyed bowtie pasta with fresh fennel and asparagus pesto, which was delicious, fresh green beans, salad and more.  The combination that I could simply not get enough of was fresh ricotta sprinkled with lemon zest, salt and pepper and the Chardonnay.  This pairing was exquisite and I think I had three helpings; just to be sure what I was tasting was real.  For those of you out there who don’t go for the chardonnay based on current California production, I encourage you to try this one, or any one from Sicily, as you will be amazed.

After lunch, Chiara and I got back in the car to go to Menfi, just a few minutes’ drive where we would find another two wineries, Cantina Piccola, where international variety wines are produced, and Cantina Grande, where La Segreta and Rose wines are produced.  This is also where many of the family members live, and Chiara even showed me the traditional blue-and-white tiled kitchen where they eat their meals.  If you are looking for that romantically stereotypical winery, this is it.  Trellised flowers climbing up the terracotta walls to the tiled rooftops, the dogs sleeping in the sun near the old watering basin, it is all here, among smiling faces.  We walked upstairs to see their library, a beautiful room with walls full of books on wine and vines with many selections dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.  This is also where they meet, at a fabulously long boardroom table, to discuss the future of Planeta.  This future is a combination of winemaking, partnering with charitable organizations and environmental sustainability.  Planeta works with Wine for Life, which offers proceeds from wine sales to help fight AIDS in Africa, and at the wineries, one sees the use of solar panels and biomass production to produce energy, which is important when you consider what it must take to air condition the production and storage areas during the hot summers in a country where conservation has always been the rule, not the exception.

palmeropress.jpgAfter leaving Menfi, I was then treated to a glimpse of their new resort being built on the hillside near the winery.  Though at mid-production, I could get a feel for the layout, and easily appreciate the view of the vineyards and the ocean that this set of structures will have.  There will be guest rooms, a restaurant, pool and barbecue area, and a spa.  I look forward to returning to see it completed, because judging from the Planeta estates and wineries, no element of quality or comfort will be overlooked.

Chiara was nice enough to help me arrange a Bed and Breakfast right on the beach, and as we drove up to La Vittoria, I was amazed to see the sand and water just steps from the front door.  It reminded me of other beachside locales like Fernandina Beach in Florida and Molokai in Hawaii, and I wished the storm could let up for just a few hours.  So, to plead my case, I did what I though the ancient Greeks would do, and I headed out to Selinunto to visit the Temples, and pay my offering of an entrance ticket.  It has been a long time since I saw the Greek temples at Paestum, just south of Naples, and the awesome view of the main temple and the acropolis below on the sea cliffs took my breath away.  Little yellow flowers were in bloom everywhere and the sun was just a few hours away from descending into the ocean, so the lighting was fit for this spectacle.  There was one temple standing, and three others in ruins due to an earthquake many years ago, and with very few people there, it was easy to enjoy and imagine how this all looked thousands of years ago.  As the sun began to set, the park was closing so I headed back to the hotel by following the seacoast.  I walked downstairs to the restaurant, and as usual, was the first one there, having arrived at the unfashionably early hour of 8:00.  I had heard that swordfish and tuna are the most abundant in Sicily, so I chose the seared swordfish, some friend artichokes and boiled potatoes with parsley.  When the fish arrived, I though there would be no way I could finish it, but to taste swordfish this juicy and tender and tasty made it impossible to leave any behind.  So far, Sicily is living up to every myth and story I have heard, and in the most casual and unassuming way.  I felt totally at ease being there by myself, but also wished there was someone with me to share it, because these moments and experiences are truly special.

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

redcar07.gif2007 Red Car Pinot Noir “Trolley” Sonoma Coast.
This is a rich and creamy wine that has lots of lush fruit and classic Pinot character. Red Car has a cult following and produce only a tiny amount of each bottling, mainly Syrah, but has got a lot of attention for the interesting Pinot Noirs. This wine shows the ripe fruit and depth of the 2007 vintage perfectly and is a pleasure in the glass all ready. The fruit is dark colored and sweet with a heady perfume and is framed by creamy toasty oak from the French barrels. Everything here screams quality and focus in a clean modern way. The fruit is a mixed of plumy black fruit and spicy red fruits with plum, cherry, raspberry and tangy sweet red currant all seamless on the palate. There is lots of layers, but is very fruit driven with vibrant young flavors and a full body, though with age should develop classic floral and mineral notes with Asian spices and smoky vanilla. ($45-50 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive

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*can be ordered through RANCHO CELLARS

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Tasting some California Grand Cru’s

morlet.jpgWhen you think of Peter Michael and Lewis Cellars, you think, and rightly so, you think top quality and limited availability. They produce some of the richest and most sought after wines in California including Chardonnay’s and Cabernet’s that rival the best from anywhere, especially the French Grand Cru’s and First Growths. This past week I was able to taste their wines, which is a pretty rare opportunity, for which I am grateful. The Lewis’ came to see me, and others while in town and the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event had the Peter Michael Winery at a press and trade lunch after a seminar.

I sipped on the Peter Michael Chardonnay and hammed it up with their winemaker Nicolas Morlet, who is becoming a super star with the last releases since taking over from his brother there. Plus I was also luck to taste the 2006 Peter Michael “Les Pavots” red as well, and I can say they are fantastic wines, though unfortunately at out of reach prices. I get a little depressed that these wonderful wines are so exclusive, but I can understand and enjoy them as well. The Chardonnay was amazing in its depth and richness with truly a Montrachet presence and outstanding elegant flavors and structure. The “Les Pavots” is everything it is billed to be and then some with power and sublime balance. Without question these are among the great wines of the world, and I am thankful to get the chance to try them.

lewisrc.jpgRandy and Debbie Lewis, of Lewis Cellars, are dedicated to producing full-bodied and ripe world-class wines. They have hired the best winemakers in the state to help them over the years, including Helen Turley and Paul Hobbs and in recent years have formed a house style that delivers total commitment and passion in the glass. Randy, an ex- Indycar driver and Debbie show intense focus on their wines and especially their vineyard sites, knowing that the fruit has to be perfect to make great wine. They get fruit from top sites in Napa and Sonoma, and they oversee them all, including little vineyards in Rutherford, Calistoga, Russian River and on Pritchard Hill. They poured the latest releases of their famed Reserve, both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, both from select Napa Valley fruit and hand picked barrels. These cuvee’s offer intense fruit and lush textures with beautiful depth and pure flavors.

To see my notes and reviews of these great wines just click here
REVIEWS

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pmchardmp.gif2007 Peter Michael Chardonnay “Mon Plaisir”.
The Peter Michael Chardonnay’s are some of the greatest whites produced, and I liken them to Domaine Laflaive, or maybe I should say they are or the Montrachet Grand Crus of California. While they don’t taste like Chevalier or Batard exactly by any means, they do scream of quality and have immense depth and richness. This vintage of “Mon Plaisir” is one of the finest ever I would suggest with deep layers and perfect balance, it should deliver excellence in flavors for 8-10 years, easy. This wine shows class, elegance and charm along with thick gobs of fruit and a super long finish. The nose is peachy, nutty and has orange blossoms that dovetail on to a palate of creamy pear, apple, honeysuckle, banana, and yellow peach with fig, backing spice, liquid mineral and vanilla. The toasty oak is a perfect frame to this lovely wine and gives hints of smoke, hazelnut, and nutmeg. The finish is long and has a wonderful lemon tart essence along with apple and quince. ($150-250 Est.) 96 Points, grapelive

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lewiscab06.gif2006 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley.
This is the main stay of the Lewis line up and it shows all the power and richness that a great Napa Cab can give with ripe and thick fruit oozing on the palate and smooth fine tannins holding everything in place. This is a big wine that shows classic character and depth of flavors. A blend of select vineyard sites including Pritchard Hill where the likes of Colgin, Bryant, David Arthur and Chappellet farm their most impressive Cabernet vines. This mountain fruit gives massive structure and a boysenberry layer and then there is some wonderful Rutherford and Calistoga Cabernet that gives lush crème de cassis and black currants as well as a chocolate like ease. There are many layers and great depth with beautiful toasty French oak shadings giving lots of creamy vanilla and mocha notes. Enjoy the huge mouth feel and the added background of plum, licorice, liqueur, tobacco leaf and sandalwood essence. ($125-150 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive

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REVIEWS

Grapelive Lastest: Pebble Beach Food & Wine

germanpinot.jpgThe Pebble Beach Food & Wine (Formally the Master’s of Food and Wine) kicked off their second year as America’s premier Wine and Food event for foodies and wine geeks. Those wanting a taste of the good life need to look no further, this is the event to attend, no question. I was happy to sit in on a trade tasting and seminar yesterday (April 16th) the event’s opening day and be given a chance to try some amazing wines.
I want to thank Mark Buzan, of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine, for inviting me and being a great host. The seminar was a general topic discussion and tasting of German wines put on by Wines of Germany (the US trade group) and conducted by Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier. Tim was full of insight and added layers of knowledge to my little brain in a smooth manner that was easy to follow and understand, and he picked a line up that was rich in terroir and wines that highlighted the diverse regions of Germany from the Pfalz to the Rheingau. To be sure, Germany is all about Riesling and hopefully always will, but I must say I have been fascinated by Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) for more than a few years, and I was very excited, almost geeky even, to try the Meyer-Nakel Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) “Pfarrwingert” Ahr (River) Grosses Gewachs (Premier Cru) Germany. A wine that last vintage took best Pinot Noir in the world by Decanter Magazine in a huge tasting that pitted the best Pinots from around the world, including Burgundy, New Zealand and USA, as well as others. Plus, they only made about 250 cases of it, so who knows if I’d ever get another chance to try it! The wine did not disappoint and I found it rich and lush with many charms and depth and above all unique in flavors, showing real terroir, but being clean and modern in style with warm creamy oak shadings and ripe fruit. The big difference in character and taste was the flinty shale like spicy notes and cool liquid mineral notes, though bold and big in fruit even for a California boy. This was a very impressive wine for sure, but sadly it is as expensive as Burgundy and at $120-150 retail per bottle, it is at least three times more expensive than the same quality of wine from California or Oregon. Look for more on this tasting and all my notes to follow.

Grapelive Lastest

magarys.gif2007 Martin Alfaro Pinot Noir “Garys’ Vineyard” Santa Lucia Highlands.
This stunning Garys’ Pinot has the elegance to seduce you and the richness to impress you, all in all this is one focused and stylish wine that delivers world class fruit and pleases completely. Joe Martin and Richard Alfaro have done it again, making a hand crafted Pinot from some of the best fruit available and all for a fair price. This vintage shows a perfumed nose of violets, wildflowers, roses and red fruits, with touches of sweet smoke, and mocha leading to a rich and round palate of blackberry, plum and a solid core of black cherries. There is subtle oak and lush fruit in this remarkable wine with deep layers and good grip from the ripe tannins and acidity. The wine shows added complexities with Asian and baking spices in the background, earth, truffle and lovely creamy vanilla also come through. This Pinot is only just beginning to show its massive appeal and potential, with a good likelyhood of developing and filling out over the next 3-5 years. ($40 Est.) 93-95 Points, grapelive
*Pre Release Sample from bottle. Due to be released August/September 2009

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Grapelive News April 2009

Kerry Winslow

castalia.jpgThis has been an impressive month in terms of new releases and the quality of the recent wines and vintages. I must say I have been blessed to have been at the right place at the right time to taste such treats. Winemakers have been out in force to show their latest offerings and seeing for themselves what the market is really like, and though things are still really scary there has been a slight up-tick in customer spending, though this seems to be, because of the deals that seem to be popping up everywhere and big discounts. The exception would seem to be limited production Pinot Noir, where the new releases are doing extremely well, especially since the 2007 vintage is one of the best so far in the 2000’s. Terry Bering of Castalia, came through the central coast showing his amazing 2007 Pinot Noir “Rochioli Vineyard”, which is mostly from the famed River Block site at Rochioli and I can say, it was just stunning. Terry is the cellar master at Rochioli and makes about 300 cases a vintage of his own Pinot Noir and is one of the great secret finds in Pinot, and at $50 a bottle, a real deal compared to his employers River Blockridgeday.jpg or Williams-Seylem, which often go for twice that price, at least!

Quickly, I can tell you about the new releases from Ridge Vineyards, shown to us by their long time Monte Bello winemaker, Eric Baugher, and I can tell you these wines are all world class, click on my reviews page link to see my notes on them. The new 2007 Ridge Chardonnay is a showstopper and I loved the new Geyserville vintage as well.

REVIEWS

Keep your eyes open for a new top Napa Cabernet, coming to you from the former winemaker at Chateau nortevin.jpgLatour, Denis Malbec and his wife May-Britt who are releasing their beautiful 2005 Norte Vin Howell Mountain. Denis also makes the Kapcsandy line up, taking over that job from Helen Turley with the 2005 vintage and scoring 95-97 Points from Robert Parker on those efforts. With his own label, Denis has made unique Bordeaux inspired mountain Cabernet that offers depth, elegance and complexity with ripe and powerful fruit. Though this wine is very expensive at $150 each, it is a sublime wine, and it would be hard to find Bordeaux that could be this good at this price.

This might be the time to think about Syrah, for those looking for full bodied powerful wines with tannins and complexity, but don’t want to for top Cabernet Sauvignon maybe it is time to jump into the purple goodness of Syrah. I just went to Big Basin’s new release party and tried Bradley Brown’s latest wines, including his estate Syrah, the Rattlesnake Rock. It is time…. Finally for Syrah to move up in the public’s eye.

bigbasin.jpgThe 2006 Big Basin Syrah Rattlesnake Rock is a rich and intense wine that offers ripe flavors, spice, power and a long finish, a wonderful wine that deserves lots of attention. They also showed the 2004 version, and wow, no wonder Bradley has won so many fans, medals and acclaim from the wine press, including 90 plus ratings from Robert Parker and others, including me!

Sometimes, with so many choices, I find it hard to pick a bottle to drink with friends, and the other night I agonized over my choices and sat in front of my collection looking for a perfect wine to introduce to a friend. I can tell you that I must have picked at every bottle on the rack. Then it happened, I came across an overlooked bottle that I hadn’t remembered having, but one that proved a perfect match for the evening, and it got me thinking, “Why don’t I drink more of this?” Well, that wine was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape Red, these are world-class wines that still are fairly priced for the quality and give lots of pleasure.

The bottle I had was a sexy and deep wine that impressed me more with each sip and each glass, until sadly it was gone. With plum, cherry liqueur, blackberry, earth, spices, mocha and grenadine notes the 2005 Roger sabon.jpgSabon Chateauneuf-du-Pape Reserve Rhone Red, France, delivers big flavors and huge delights. So don’t forget about Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is like falling in love all over again.

I also am thankful to have been lucky enough to have been able to try to amazing Champagnes, it is not often when people share vintage Dom Perignon, Billecart-Salmon or Crystal, so it is a special day when you are invited to try them all in one setting. Being a wine professional, sometimes I try to not like expensive labels, but I can tell you the 1996 Dom Perignondom96.gif Moet & Chandon Champagne is a beautiful and deeply complex wine; yes it is very lovely bubbly.

I was very impressed with this vintage and it put the others in the shade, even though I was surprised how nice the 2000 Crystal Roederer Champagne was. The poor Billecart just never had a chance, even though it is a super Champagne. The Dom showed rich yeasty flavors with a touch of savory earth, pear and lemon zest, leaving a long spiced apple finish and lingering toast. The Crystal was lighter with mostly citrus fruit and bright flavors; this wine is young and firm, finishing crisp and sharp. Both Champagnes showed perfect bubbles and had creamy mouth feel, with the Dom getting nod as the winner, and rated a near perfect score in my notes.

brandy.jpgLast month I told you about Brandy Falconer, and she has been posting some interesting stories here on Grapelive for the last few weeks. She went to Italy to cover the huge wine tasting event in Verona, the Vinitaly. I have been jealous of her travels and amazed with all she has done in such a short time. Brandy lived in Italy, near Naples for almost two years and has many friends, but Vinitaly was just a start, as she is also challenging herself and exploring the Italian wine industry to find her next stage, maybe even finding a new career there. I admire her spirit and guts to pack a bag and go, as she plans to stay until her visa runs out visiting as many wineries and vineyards as she can fit in and discover her future. I want to say good luck to her on her journey and thanks for posting her adventures while there. To see her full coverage of Vinitaly 2009 and read her latest posts keep checking in here at Grapelive. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear about the great wine and food of Italy and hear about the people and vineyards she sees and meets on her three-month trek.

Grapelive: Wine of the Week

rrv07.gif2007 River Ranch Pinot Noir Estate Reserve (Carmel Valley) Monterey.
Bill Stahl’s tiny estate in the beautiful Carmel Valley was planted in 1983 to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as he was in love with Burgundy, in fact he made sure his cuttings came from Grand Cru plantings, the “rumor” is and has been that these were “La Tache” clone, from Romanee-Conti. He had until the 2007 vintage had Talbott Vineyards make his small production wines, though he never touched the expectations he had hoped for, but then he enlisted Peter Figge, a vineyard guru and talent, and now the wine is finally closing in on its potential. This is the best wine I’ve tried from this estate, even though the 1994 was very good, this is a wonderful and complex Pinot Noir of style and complexity. Without decanting, and being the very first bottle show to the trade, it jumped out of the glass with robust intensity and vibrant flavors that filled the mouth and came in silky thick layers on the palate. This is a very impressive young Pinot that has lots of depth and richness with an explosion of cherry and plum fruit and touches of smoke, mineral, river rock, truffle, mint leaf, and vanilla. After letting it open, you were rewarded with lots more cherry fruit, spice and a lovely perfume of wildflowers, violets and rose oil. This wine has Burgundy like acidity and firm structure, so decant when young. Congrats to Bill and Peter for making the best Carmel Valley Pinot Noir to date, and it should just get more interesting and intriguing with a little more age. Only 53 Cases made. ($40 Est.) 92-93 Points, grapelive
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*Pre-Release Sample, this wine is not due to be released until August 2009.

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Pre-Orders taken at Rancho Cellars Fine Wine Merchants

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Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Vinitaly, The Final Day
Brandy Falconer

girardigrapes.jpgSunday night there was an earthquake.  When it happened, I was surprised to feel it, and concerned because the apartment where I am staying is on the 5th floor.  Luckily my host was still up working as well, and we checked the Internet for any news, but couldn’t find anything at the time.  Coming from the central coast of California, I am accustomed to little local earthquakes that rumble but do little damage, so I didn’t stop to think about the destruction that might have happened elsewhere.  After checking the news one last time, we both went to sleep, and it wasn’t until the next morning that we knew what had really happened.  The photos tell such a sad story, and when I left the house for the expo, there was a tangible sadness and hurt that permeated throughout the city.  I could hear the many conversations taking place at the bar where I had my breakfast of cappuccino and croissant; people discussing friends and relatives near the area, their attempts to contact them, and prayers for their safety.

It was a quieter day at Vinitaly, and during my first appointment with Luca Currado, winemaker for Vietti in Piedmont, there was a minute of silence.  Luca’s wife was frustrated that the lights were not dimmed during the silence, as I was by the handful of people talking and going about their business.   Luca a 3rd generation family member, talked a bit about their philosophy at Vietti, and I continue to be impressed by this winery after being introduced to them 7 years ago by friends in Austria.   The family’s mission was to bring the winery to a higher level by expressing their passion for terroir.  Luca, who honed his winemaking skills in Bordeaux and California, saw that the “Revolution” of Nebbiolo, creating Barbaresco and Barolo, left the other Piedmont grapes Barbera and Dolcetto behind.  It wasn’t thought that Barbera could be a truly great wine, and therefore the grapes were previously planted in poorer areas that wouldn’t sustain great Nebbiolo vines.  But, after a huge financial investment and leap of faith by Vietti, Barbera and Dolcetto were planted in supreme locations, and, combined with good winemaking, the result was a “wow factor” especially for young wine drinkers, looking for value and quality when purchasing wine.  I revisit my comparison between Barbera d’Asti and d’Alba with the La Crena, and Tre Vigne, respectively, and again conclude that I prefer the Alba.   Luca jokingly tells me he likens the Alba to Grace Kelly and the Asti to Angelina Jolie, which I think perfectly, emphasizes my choice.  Grace Kelly was an elegant classic with a slight edge.  The other wine to result from this investment, the Dolcetto, is wonderful and a must-try, with bright aromas of licorice and berries, and a juicy fresh fruit flavor and a long, perfumed finish.  Not only is Vietti fortunate that this investment paid off with beautiful wines, but we, the consumers are as well, and should be thankful for this undertaking.

vietti_luca.jpgAnother prize for Barolo lovers looking for a great value is the Nebbiolo Perbacco, a very important production for the winery (and wine drinkers as well.)  After the grapes for the Grande Cru Castiglione Barolo (from different vineyards) are crushed and aged according to Barolo regulation, the top barrels are selected for blending, and the “leftover” wine that can legally be classified as Barolo is bottled as the Perbacco.  Why?  Simply because Vietti refuses to make a regular Barolo, so they instead make a spectacular Nebbiolo that shouts aromas of leather and vanilla and flavors of toasted vanilla and strawberry ending in a fruity and tannic finish.  This “Baby Barolo” retails for under $25, and should be considered an extreme value.  I was lucky enough to finish our discussion and tasting with the three single vineyard Barolos, Rocche, Brunate and Lazzarito, named for the hospital nearby which was a refuge for sufferers of the Black Plague.  The hospital builders decided that anyplace that had a history (in 1640!) of producing such beautiful wines, it should be a good place for health and healing.  I want to note here that I was very lucky to have had some time with Luca during Vinitaly, and actually got the appointment because I mentioned to his wife the day before that I had met him a couple of months ago in Las Vegas at a tasting at the Double Helix wine bar at the Palazzo.  I had attended the $5 weekly wine tasting because I saw that Vietti was the featured wine, and was shocked to have the chance, with only 15 other people, to meet the winemaker…and have him sign a bottle of wine!  So, support your local wine shop, wherever you are, because you never know what kind of opportunities will be uncorked.

girardi.jpgSince this was the last day of Vinitaly, I knew I had limited time to get two more tastings in, at Villa Girardi, owned by the famous Tommasi family, and Antinori’s group of wineries.  I headed to Villa Girardi first, where Franco Tommasi, whom I saw briefly the other day, greeted me warmly.  I started with the whites, which Franco told me are what the people of Verona (Veronese) drink in the morning, because they do not need food to be delicious.  I love the Soave of course, but also enjoy the Santa Giustina blend of Garganega, Tokai and Malvasia that offers explosive flavor without sweetness.  I also enjoy the unrecognizable “I Mulini” Pinot Grigio, a delicious departure from other over-marketed brands.  We move on to the Bardolino, an easy-drinking favorite of mine, which I think goes very well with Thanksgiving dinner.  We move forward to the Valpolicella and then the Ripasso, and Franco takes out the crates of shriveling grapes that he has on display to explain how the grape clusters are cut and dried until they lose 40% of their weight.  This was a good visual because I had previously pictured the “dried” grapes as looking more like raisins.  From the first crushing comes the prized Amarone with its intense aromas of tobacco, clove and cherry jam, then pleasant prune flavors and a lingering finish.  I am familiar with the family’s Tommasi Amarone Classico and am further impressed with the Villa Girardi expression of this wine.  Franco can see my eyes glazing over and brings me a plate of Parma ham, cheese and bread and says, “take 5 minutes and relax, I’ll be back,” what a gem.  I eat like a starved prisoner, and it is hard not to pick up the glass of wine and enjoy sips with this meal.

I leave refreshed and take a brisk walk over to the Tuscany pavilion to find the Antinori booths. My contact there was not available, but Rita came to walk me through a tasting of some of their selections from the “La Braccesca” label, whose Vino Nobile di Montepulciano holds a special place in my heart because my best friend and I shared a bottle over dinner after she had guided me through the Uffizi Gallery’s masterpieces as only an artist could.  I saw things that day that I had never seen in four previous visits, little secrets left behind by the renaissance artists 400 years ago.  I was lucky enough to try three of their most special wines, the Chianti Classico Cru “Badia a Passignano” and the “Super Tuscans” of Tignanello estate, Tignanello and Solaia, ones that other tasters asked for but were denied.  I think that made them taste even better, but they really did not need any help in the first place.  I particularly liked the Solaia’s woodsy and mushroom flavors and dense garnet color.  The base of this wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, while Tignanello has a higher percentage of Sangiovese.

vietti_bottl.jpgAfterward, Rita took me to another stand housing their new winery in Puglia, Tormaresca, where Francesco Domini poured some impressive whites and reds, and a delicious not-yet-exported Calafuria Rose from Negroamaro grapes.  Of the whites, including the Pietrabianca Chardonnay and Fiano blend, I thoroughly enjoyed “wow” aromas of apple and citrus from the Chardonnay IGT and its crisp flavors of pear and apple.  This wine is fermented in barrels then aged in stainless steel before bottling and this makes an altogether different and delicious Chardonnay, for those of you looking for a fresh take on an old favorite.  My favorite of the reds was the Bocca di Lupo estate Castel del Monte Aglianico, which I found to be quite different from those of Campagna, and very elegant.  Francesco tells me that this is due to the lower altitudes and rockier soil than their northwestern neighbor.   This full-bodied wine is full of fruit and spice, with nicely balanced tannins.

Though I think I am not quite ready to end my experience at Vinitaly, stands are packing up and partying has broken out.  To be honest, I am not sure that I could taste another wine.  The Abruzzo pavilion is empty, as the exhibitors have returned to their region I am sure with anxious hearts, and I hope they are able to soon find some peace after this tragedy.

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Day 4 at Vinitaly
Brandy Falconer

banfi.jpgDespite my original intentions to take the day off from the expo, today was my “Winnie the Pooh-style” day of wandering, visiting and enjoying this Vinitaly experience.   After the fun and late night before, I slept in and was fortunate to get a ride from Piero, my host, to the expo as he was on his way to a family lunch near the lake (Garda).  I had one more Sicilian winery to visit upon recommendation, and that was Vini Biondi, where my hosts, Ciro and Stefanie cheerfully welcomed me.  This winery is in the high elevations of the Etna region of northeast Sicily, and even in this small area, I learned that there were significant differences in the soil from vineyard to vineyard.  The family has owned these vineyards since the 1600s and in the 1930s; wines brought by the grandfather to France for a competition received awards there.  The first of three wines I tasted was the Etna DOC Bianco called “Outis” which is ancient Greek for “Nessuno” which in Italian means “No one.”  They tell me that their desired name Nessuno was already registered as a wine name, something I have heard a few times while visiting the stands.  It is like domain names on the Internet, everything seems to be already taken.  This wine has a mellow floral aroma, and a slate-y taste (which I like) and a faint and amiable saltiness to it.  Next, I tried the “3 bicchiere” award winning 2005 Etna DOC Rosso, a blend of several indigenous grapes from various vineyards aged in used barriques.  With a slight salinity, this wine is smooth and acidic while still being enjoyable.  I then tasted the 2007 Cru, which will be called M.I. because due to regulations, they cannot use the geographical name, Monte Ilice for the wine.  This wine has not yet been bottled, and I thought it was exciting to get to taste something “pre-production.”   Aromas of orange blossom and honey gave way to a more earthy and dry savory herb taste and a simple but lingering finish.  Ciro and Stefanie recommend another winery in Piedmont whose owner likened these Sicilian wines to his own, even though they are at the two farthest points in the country.  This I had to see for myself.

On the way there, I stopped by the large castle display of Banfi and was able to talk with Alessandro, in charge of European sales, and taste some of the newer concepts at Banfi.  I learned that they make their own barriques, something no other Italian wineries do, in order to control the aging and toasting of the wood (preferring lower heat for longer periods) for extracting more delicate flavors.  The philosophy of this large label which produces over 40 wines, is to treat each estate as a boutique winery, as if each were its own and not part of a larger group.  We start tasting with the 2008 Centine Bianco, an every day drinking wine with appealing mineral and citrus fruit aromas and a soft peach flavor that also has a nice balance of flavor and acidity.  Next we tried the Belnero Toscana IGT, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese.  Alessandro tells me this is their modern concept of Sangiovese and corresponds to the research they did when developing the Poggio al Muro Brunello.  I enjoyed the aromas of coffee and chocolate, as well as the softness and fullness on the palate.  To compare, we then tasted the just-released 2004 Poggio al Muro Brunello di Montalcino, which received 94 points from Wine Spectator.  This wine is a deep garnet color with strong tobacco and spice aromas.  The taste was bold in the mouth, issuing flavors of ripe dark cherry and coffee.    I am thinking back to my birthday and the bottle of Banfi Brunello that we enjoyed with dinner, and smiling.  I love that these people are so passionate about making and developing wine!

Feeling hungry, I made my way to the little bar for a sandwich and took it to the lounge to eat in peace.  I am amazed at my diet in recent days, mostly bread, which is the polar opposite to my normal gluten-free regime.  Maybe like re-setting my watch to the current time zone, my body has been reset for the current food zone.

sella.jpgMy next visit was to the Sella Wine Estates in Piedmont, where Gioachino Sella greets me and introduces me to their terrior by way of two bowls of soil sitting at the tasting table, one full of rocks and decomposed granite and the other, full of grey sand.  This is going to be interesting, I thought.   As beautiful pictures of the estates fade in and out in a digital picture frame, I learn that the Sella family has produced wine from their own vineyards since 1671 and is one of the oldest active Italian wine producers, with bottles still in their cellars dating as far back as 1881.   That IS interesting!  I read in their brochure that the estate maintains its original artisan scale and produces only limited amounts of quality wine.  Also, that they produce in a classical style (not to be confused with “old”) which to them means that the most authentic characteristics of the terroir and the vines are brought forward and aged in neutral wood.

I begin tasting a range of 9 wines with the Doranda Coste della Sesia DOC, made from 100% Erbaluce grapes.  This is their only white wine, and a grape indigenous to Piedmont that I have never tasted.  It offers aromas of almond and wildflowers, and a richness that surprises me.  Next, the Nebbiolo Rose which has not been bottled yet, then on to the blends where I taste for the first time the Croatina grape with its strong tannins.  Then, another first, the taste and aroma of iron and rust found in the signature wines made from 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Vespolina grapes.  This is a new sensation for me, and it was the “I Porfidi” with an addition of 20% Croatina that won me over to the taste which is enhanced by the flavors of blueberry and vanilla.  This wine’s 2003 vintage won the “3 bicchiere” award by Gambero Rosso.  As I am writing this, I can hardly read my notes…it must be because I was tired or writing furiously.  Yes, I’ll stick with that.

After thanking my hosts, I continued on my Winnie the Pooh day and stopped by the Batasiolo booth to thank them for the dinner and fun the night before.  Again, I found myself admiring the friendliness and “joi de vivre” that is found in the people there.  I look forward to visiting them in May as I make my way through Piedmont, Torino and the neighboring towns.

champagne.jpgNow, as in any good Pooh story, there must be some element of adventure or surprise.  On my way out of the pavilion, I stopped to take a photo of a particular stand and noticed that something hit my foot.  I looked down and saw a champagne cork that was still surrounded by the neck of the bottle.  Of course, I knew how this had happened, as I happen to be quite adept at shearing the top of a champagne bottle with a sabre.  I could hear some commotion around the corner, so I picked up the cork and walked over to the group and asked, “Is this yours?”  A little embarrassed, they apologized and sweetened the deal by offering me a glass of their champagne.  Fair enough.  It was the first thing I had liked and didn’t have to spit out that day, and it was kind of nice to enjoy the “end-of-the-day” atmosphere.

When it comes to classifying myself as one of the Pooh characters, my friends and family would probably choose rabbit (on bad days) or piglet, but today I was a relaxed and jovial Pooh, and proud of it.  Unfortunately if I ever write a cooking book, I won’t be able to use the title “Cooking with Pooh” because it is already taken!  I am not kidding, you can look it up.

Grapelive Lastest: Vinitaly 2009

Vinitaly 2009 Day 3:  Giro d’Italia
Brandy Falconer

batasiolobf.jpgIn preparation for the Giro d’Italia cycling race, which starts May 9 with or without Lance Armstrong, I thought I would take my own “Tour of Italy” via the pavilions at Vinitaly today.  Already day 3 and I have only seen one third of the pavilions, so I decided to at least walk through as many as possible in order to get a closer look at how each province sees itself.   Starting in the north east of Italy, we have Trentino, whose pavilion has a fun burgundy and white wine bottle graphic exterior.  Inside the stands are like little wood ski chalets, and again I am reminded of the Matterhorn ride’s alpine decorations and costumed operators. (Yes, I will TRY to make this my last Disneyland comparison)  In the Eastern portion of the country lies Emiglia Romana, where you will find Modena, famous for Tortellini, Pavarotti, Balsamic Vinegar and of course Ferrari.   For you Lambrusco lovers out there, this is where you will find your treat.  Heading all the way south, we finally stop in Sicily’s pavilion for some tasting.  I started with a small winery that makes only three wines, Morgante.  Carmelo Morgante was kind enough to talk me through their IGT selections of Nero D’avola wines, beginning with their entry level Nero with its cranberry tartness, then on to the velvety Don Antonio.  The most interesting selection was what will be called “Zamara” which is translated to the agave plant.  I’m sure it was the power of suggestion, but this mellow Nero’s herb flavors reminded me of tequila.  A quick sip of their soft and enjoyable Grappa made from Nero with some almond cookies and I am ready to continue my journey.

I stayed in the Sicily pavilion to meet Francesca Planeta and her cousin Alessio, the winemaker for Planeta.  Though a large production label, the concept here is more artisan, with five estates and six boutique wineries that are close to the vineyards.  The results speak for themselves as the diversity of the wines produced in no way infringes on the quality and craftsmanship.  I think this is due to the fact that they are passionate about cultivating indigenous grapes with planetabf.jpgrespect to their terroir, and maintaining environmental sustainability.  Of the whites, the well-balanced chardonnay stood out for me, with its freshness and acidity owing to the malolactic fermentation in the casks rather than before going in the casks.  The Syrah rose deliciously bridged the gap from whites to reds with strawberry aromas and a nice juiciness without being the least bit sweet.  My favorite red was the Nero d’Avola Cru 2006 Santa Cecilia, which celebrates its 10th vintage this year and also won the “3 glasses” award from Gambero Rosso.  There are licorice and plum aromas, and a nice balance of acid and tannins that make this fresh wine enjoyable and drinkable.   We finished the run of 12 wines with the surprisingly fresh and acidic Passito di Noto from Moscato Bianco grapes, which I am told is varietal that dates back to the Phoenicians, and I’m wishing that I had taken a few more almond cookies from Morgante

Heading back up the front of the boot, I stop in Campania for a taste of my long lost friend, Fiagre at Antonio Caggiano.  Known for their Taurasi(s), like Macchia dei Goti DOCG, I am impressed by their whites.  The Fiagre is a wine comprised of perfumey Fiano di Avellino and the minerally Greco di Tufo.  The result is something best described as “tasty” and definitely enjoyable with and without food.

To complete my “Giro,” I will make an important stop in Piemonte to Beni di Batasiolo, another friend lost in the export shuffle.  Introduced by my friend Mike Grulli at Vinottimo, I batas_vini.jpgenjoyed their Dolcetto, Barbera(s) and Barolo(s) while in Naples, but have since lost touch.   Riccardo March, the US export manager greets me and makes introductions while buzzing from table to table.  I sit down with Paola to start tasting the whites like Serbato Chardonnay, aged in stainless steel only, and my favorite the Gavi di Gavi with its soft mineral taste and peach aromas.  We were lucky enough to be joined by the winemaker when I began to taste the reds.  I was excited to compare the Barbara d’Alba with the Barbera d’Asti and discover that I prefer the softness and fruitiness of the Alba.  We move on to the grape, which has mystified my taste buds for years, Nebbiolo, and its wines, Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines offer more tobacco and spice flavors and tannins that stand up to complex dishes.  My favorite was the 2004 Vigneto Cerequio Barolo, made from the grapes of one of the most historical vineyards in the Barolo region.  With wild berry flavors and just a hint of tobacco, this is a well-balanced and friendly Barolo.

I am lucky to say that my virtual tour of Italy turned into a real tour of Verona as I was invited to the Batasiolo dinner that night at a wonderful restaurant in the center of the old city, “I Masenini.”  This was an incredible experience, not just because I was getting to taste these wines in their native environment (i.e. with complex dishes like Amarone risotto and slow roasted veal), but I was also able to meet and enjoy the company of a fun and vibrant group of people.  So fun in fact that we headed to a club afterwards for some dancing!  I found Club 59 in Verona to be a great alternative to the highbrow ultra lounges in Las Vegas.  This was a party, with people dancing, laughing and drinking and simply enjoying life.  I forgot about being tired and joined in, but in the back of my mind wondering how all of these people would be ready for another early morning tomorrow.  I decided that one of my hosts, Riccardo definitely has a little plutonium source somewhere in his jacket, and the others as well simply enjoy what they are doing.   And in a small way, I can understand what keeps Lance Armstrong wanting to continue to race, and to be ready to tackle the Giro d’Italia next month, it is simply the passion for living life and living it well.